How the UAE's new national orchestra can future-proof itself

The creation of a new national orchestra is a major score for the UAE cultural scene: its repertoire should draw upon the music-rich traditions of communities residing here, producing something truly our own

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - March 20, 2010:

NATIONAL: Krzysztof Penderecki conducts the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra during the opening gala of the Abu Dhabi Festival at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, March 20, 2010. Amy Leang/The National

This week’s announcement that a national orchestra would be up and running in the UAE next year was music to my ears. The Minister for culture and knowledge development, Noura Al Kaabi, delivered the news on Tuesday as part of an Abu Dhabi forum organised by the Federal Youth Authority.

Elaborating on her announcement, she told the 4,000 young Emiratis in attendance that the orchestra would include both homegrown and international talent, with the aim to celebrate the country’s rich musical heritage. This is a noble and important goal, but it comes with an ominous background score.

The creation of a national orchestra comes in what are turbulent times in the classical music world where questions are being asked about the overall relevance of such musical institutions globally.

Lack of finance and public interest has led to many organisations across North America and Europe closing their doors for good. Emergency summits have been held globally with discussions centring around reviving the fortunes of the cultural ensembles; while progressives have been advocating more commercial productions in a bid to attract the interest of a new generation. Purists, on the other hand, argue that such a move would eliminate the core audience that has kept these institutions going through the most challenging periods.

I believe that, in spite of this discord, a UAE national orchestra can lead the way forward – if we are prepared to fully seize the opportunities that come with building a new cultural institution such as this.

The first challenge is to change the public perception that an orchestra is strictly a musical endeavour. Instead, it should be seen as an institution where education and community take on a central role. This means more than simply shuttling off orchestra players to showcase their shiny instruments in schools; rather, these interactions should be used to discuss relevant youth issues such as building a work ethic, perseverance, handling challenges and how to deal with success and failures – hard lessons that come hand-in-hand with life as a performer.

This also means the orchestra leaving its rarefied headquarters and going into UAE communities more. With the country home to one of the most cosmopolitan societies in the world, a national orchestra can expand its repertoire and draw upon the inspiration of the music-rich traditions of communities residing here. The end result would be a collaboration that would produce something truly our own.

The orchestra's members should also be empowered to be more than mere stage musicians. Each must be made to understand they are part of something important to the country. Fortunately, such concepts are not foreign to the UAE, particularly in the capital. For more than two decades, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation has inspired generations of young Emiratis by melding its performance programme with a number of educational and mentorship programmes. This has inspired scores of young people to enter various creative fields, including art, culture and the media.

Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi Classics concert season, which begins next Friday, has long provided valuable opportunities for young musicians living in the UAE to interact and learn from more established performers and orchestras.

Engraving some of these inclusive values into the score sheet of a new ­national orchestra will almost certainly help ensure its legacy will extend well beyond the stage.


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